LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) — A war-weary Lee Alley returned stateside in June 1968, a veteran relieved to be home but one carrying the battle scars of Vietnam and the ghosts of men killed in combat.
"I was a lost soul," he said. "I just wanted somewhere I could belong."
His once beloved Laramie and University of Wyoming, however, wasn't that place, at least not for a while.
Life on the UW campus, he said, reflected the anti-war sentiment around the country.
Students, safe and insulated from the war, long on opinions and short on life experiences, protested the U.S. campaign regularly on campus, at times sharing harsh words and feelings toward veterans who served, Alley said.
An interaction with a fellow Laramie veteran, a man who fought in World War II, eviscerated any hope Alley had of a smooth transition back to civilian life, of finding peace and a place away from the memories of Southeast Asia.
"We won our war," Alley recalls the World War II veteran saying to him.
"It just crushed me," he said of the words spoken to him. "And this was from another veteran, of all people. ... (Home) just became an atmosphere I did not feel comfortable in."
Time has stitched many emotional wounds from the war and mended hard feelings created by the culture that once existed in Laramie and at UW, said Alley, one of Wyoming's most decorated Vietnam veterans and author of "Back from War."
It's done the same, he added, for shifting American attitudes about the war in Vietnam, the veterans who fought it and veterans who have fought since 9/11 in the Middle East.
"As far as I'm concerned, the best thing that came out of Vietnam is never again will this nation disrespect veterans of this country," Alley said. "To me, that's the best lesson to come out of Vietnam.
"The nation has done 180 degrees. Soldiers today are treated with such great respect, and that's the way it should be. I'm really proud of our country for that, for the way it's turned."
Alley, now 66, of Wheatland is the former recon platoon leader for the Ninth Infantry Division, Fifth Battalion, 60th Infantry in Vietnam. His awards for service include the Army's Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.
A 1964 graduate of University High Prep, a former preparatory school on the UW campus, and a 1972 UW graduate, Alley was drafted into the Army and served three years, from 1965 to 1968. He fought in Vietnam at the height of the war, from 1967 to 1968, a participant in the violent battles of Fire Base Yeager and Fire Base Cudgel.
But for all his medals and achievements, Alley said it's a recent honor bestowed upon him that he takes the most pride in: a commendation from UW he considers a sign of respect for all Vietnam veterans.
Alley was chosen to be grand marshal in UW's Homecoming Parade last month.
"They (UW) stumbled onto something that is huge for a whole generation of veterans," he said, fighting off tears. "I look at this as the homecoming parade for the Vietnam veterans, I really do.
"It's just like, 'Finally, we get our parade.' It's not just for me, it's for all of the Vietnam guys in Laramie."
While the military trained him well to fight and lead in the life-or-death struggle of combat, Alley said there was nothing that prepared him for that "other side" — coming home.
"There was absolutely no training on how to turn off the switch," he said.
For a man accustomed to standing his ground against armed enemies, Alley doesn't shy away from what scared him upon coming back to the U.S.: life as a civilian.
"I ran and hid," he said. "I didn't want to talk about the war."
Alley said he was excited about returning to UW, visiting with friends and family and giving the "Queen Elizabeth wave" during the parade.
It's been a long time coming, he said, bringing his life full circle and finding what had been missing for so many years.
"Things turned around," he said. "Things are great today. I'm very at peace with myself. I'm now at peace with what happened."
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